We need more than a Green New Deal
Aditya Chakrabortty's polemic against the Green New Deal has helped clarify debates in the wider movement.
I had planned to write a bit about the Hungarian economist, Janos Kornai, who died a few weeks ago, and in particular in his work on “shortage economies”. I think his insights about “actually existing socialism” in the Eastern bloc can be usefully applied to actually existing capitalism everywhere, and clearly I’m not the only one to do so – Matthew Klein, writing in the Financial Times, claims they show a post-pandemic shock therapy may be be needed to break capitalist economies from their dependencies on government-funded “soft budget constraints”. Daniela Gabor does a very neat job of showing why this is wrong here.
What threw me off-course was Aditya Chakrabortty’s latest for the Guardian, which I read as a much-needed intervention in an ongoing debate around the joint issues of political strategy, and theories of the state and economy, in relation to climate change. Criticising the “Green New Deal”, that centrepiece of left climate policy, Chakrabortty claims it is a slogan with poor framing and limited reach; is confused about its actual content; and, in any case, isn’t likely to be enough to address the ecological collapse we actually face.
Intentional or not, the fundamental issues he raises exactly match those that have been knocked about in the last month or so, in the run-up to COP26, and in particular the arguments that have blown up (as it were) on the English-speaking left around the work of ecologist Andreas Malm and his three post-2019 texts, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, and the edited collection White Skin, Black Fuel. Adam Tooze and Richard Seymour have been going back-and-forth in their respective blogs and into the virtual pages of the New Statesman with some thoughtful contributions, and likewise from James Butler in the London Review of Books. At the centre of this dispute – at least in my reading of it – are the venerable (and related) questions of agency and the state: or, who can change the world? and can we rely on governments?
COP26 has, unhappily if predictably, supplied one version of an answer to those questions. (It’s “not the G20” and “no”.) Seymour and Tooze have quite distinct takes on both: Tooze arguing for a version of state-centred reformism (indeed one way to read his intellectual project in total is as a rescue attempt for an Atlanticist social democracy, but that’s a side issue). Seymour, with a background in revolutionary socialism, takes a far more cynical view of the prospects of state-centred reformism in current conditions, but views crisis as potentially conducive to positive change; Tooze believes that we are entering a “climate Kalecki” moment, in which, the fossil fuel lobby and business interests will militate against serious climate action. The last-minute watering down of the (already watery) COP26 certainly weighs in Tooze’s favour. But the estimated million protestors across the world, the growing organisational capacity of the more radical end of the environmental movement, and the visible shift in public consciousness could count for Seymour.
What I attempted to flag last week (and also in the NS) were the problems in misassigning agency in the argument: Tooze’s use of Michal Kalecki, in particular, was telling; he, along with the (unjustly) better-known John Maynard Keynes is a theorist of capitalist autonomy – that is, they have theories of capitalism that present it as a system that allows a very high degree of freedom to the choices that those in command of capital – generally speaking, business owners and their senior management – have to make over the direction of the economy. In both cases, failures of choice on the part of capitalists – the failure, in particular under Kalecki, to invest – should be answered by state intervention.
Typically, in the Keynesian system – especially in its “neoclassical synthesis” version of the IS-LM diagram, first presented by John Hicks in 1937 – this would mean governments running deficits when capitalists were not investing and spending had fallen, causing a recession. For the more radical Keynesians and the Kaleckians, this short-run principle would be turned into a long-run policy of maintaining heavy government investment spending over extended periods of time. (The “socialisation of investment”, as Keynes himself called it at the end of his General Theory, to go with the “euthanasia of the rentier”. They don’t teach you this bit in EC102.)
It is, in other words, a theory of autonomy of capitalists, and (therefore) what to do when this autonomy fails. The Green New Deal, as it is usually presented, is a programme for how to deal with that failure by capitalists in terms of climate change. There is some haziness about what this should be (a point to come back to), but most versions of it boil down to a demand for a very substantial amount of government spending, over a compressed timeframe, to compensate for the capitalist failure to invest in decarbonisation. We should, following GND principles, be looking to deliver green investment, mobilised by the state, to remove fossil fuels from our various energy systems over the next few years. For all their seeming differences over strategy (roughly, green reformism vs “ecological Leninism”), Tooze and Malm agree on this. So do very large numbers of activists, politicians, and broad chunks of civil society. Agency, here, is displaced onto the “big green state” that will carry out the necessary transformation. What form we think that state takes is then a secondary consideration to the fact that we assume it has this capacity at all. (In the terms Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan, we seem to be left caught somewhere between the “Climate Leviathan” and the “Climate Mao”.)
“Muddled, top-down, technocratic”
Against this, Chakraborrty three primary arguments cut across the questions of agency and the state. First, the Green New Deal itself is a “conceptual fog” – a “muddle” of different proposals, depending on who you ask at any point in time: “green jobs” for “AOC and the US left”, shorter working week for Clive Lewis and Caroline Lucas; debt cancellation and “green Keynesianism” elsewhere. This is the weakest of his criticisms – there’s no compelling reason why a very broad coalition should agree on the dots and commas of what it is demanding. If the framing of the programme then the fuzziness about its content doesn’t matter so much.
Unfortunately, and this is Chakrabortty’s second objections, the framing of the GND is weak. I’ve thought this before: FDR’s “New Deal” surely has some resonance in the US, but in Britain (and, I’d guess, perhaps even more so in the non-English speaking world, ie almost all of it) it’s not a part of our history and doesn’t have the same resonance outside of the politically engaged. (Particularly the politically engaged left: Gordon Brown called his own youth job creation programme a “New Deal”.) I thought it was pretty smart of Rebecca Long-Bailey to call Labour’s green investment programme a “green industrial revolution” instead - and you could tell it was smart, because Boris Johnson nicked the slogan – although Chakrabortty suggests even this coining was only barely more popular than “Green New Deal” in recent polling for suggestions. (“National recovery programme” is apparently preferred – shades of these pioneers of shorter working week, I thought.)
But perhaps more importantly than this is the way the framing turns into a specific kind of claim about what the GND will do. Military metaphors abound – Ed Miliband’s Go Big wants a “carbon army”, elsewhere you find activists referencing the mobilisation of the Second World War as an exemplar for decarbonisation today – but, as Chakrabortty notes, the main point about the military is that it is an incredibly authoritarian structure. An army doesn’t work without hierarchy and command. But this approach would turn your big campaign to decarbonise society into something that it is imposed on people, not something done with them.
(Incidentally, we’ve had a very striking example, in the last 18 months, of this version of the militarisation of social objectives. As Alex de Wall shows in his essential New Pandemics, Old Politics, the public health interventions we use against pandemic diseases themselves come from a military model, at least in part because modern militaries themselves were amongst the first large institutions to attempt to systematically tackle disease outbreaks. But this metaphor, and its programme of action, has its own systematic limitations, as we have seen in the social side-effects of lockdowns and quarantines under covid. For a taster of de Wall’s argument, his Boston Review essay is here.)
Now a serious campaign to decarbonise society is going to have to impose at least some conditions on at least some people – fossil fuel production is going to have to stop, for example, and that isn’t going to happen by market diktat alone. GND proposals usually include ways to make that imposition more palatable, by promising alternative employment – as they should and must.
The problem of scale
But it illustrates a wider problem, and this is Charkrabortty’s third point. Because GND-style proposals are about government programmes, they tend to focus very heavily on what government can do, and in particular with what government can do when it also has access to technology. Take Labour’s “Thirty By Thirty” proposals, produced before the 2019 election: a detailed, comprehensive plan to rapidly decarbonise the UK’s energy system. It is detailed, sophisticated, and impeccably argued. But it relies on the “big green state” being able to substitute technologies – swapping poor insulation in existing housing for better insulation, for instance, or installing offshore wind on a colossal scale.
The problem is that, first, you do in fact need public support to do much of this: mass loft insulation will be disruptive, and likewise replacing gas boilers. Promises of jobs and public health benefits will help but you’re still having to rely on an (increasingly cynical) population to trust that government is doing the right thing, and bear at least some costs for doing so. The second issue is that, driven by the technological options open to a country like Britain, you’re zeroing in on one part of our environmental collapse – that of decarbonisation.
The breadth of this ecological collapse is too easily forgotten, with the UN’s Biodiversity Conference receiving a fraction of the attention of COP26, for example, even as we drive a million species to extinction. But so, too, is the blowback from our efforts to tackle just one part of this collapse. Battery production, essential to a renewable energy future, requires rare earth minerals. The largest known deposits of these are in China; the second largest in Greenland. I’ve written previously on the great power confrontation brewing over access to these precious metals, and Adam Ramsey and Aaron White here interview the territory’s new Prime Minister, Múte Bourup Egede of the indigenous, pro-independence and ecosociaist Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party, winners of April’s snap elections - called in the wake of plans by the then-government to open Greenland up to further mining concessions.
Meanwhile, in Glasgow, two thousand kilometres south and east, a side agreement at COP26, signed by major economies and (some) car manufacturers committed them to phasing out sales of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040. But this will push up demand for batteries and therefore rare earths, directly impacting Greenland. IA has banned all future fossil fuel drilling and Greenland’s Parliament is currently debating a bill to block a proposed Chinese-owned major drilling site for uranium and neodymium at the south of the island. (IA’s election campaigning was hit by a dirty tricks campaign, the origins of which remain obscure.)
Or else, shifting the scale back down again, take the kind of changes to the economy that could, if pursued, rapidly reduce its energy and resource demands: reductions in working time being the most obvious, but so, too, would a switch into prioritising low-impact but high social value activities like carework. Of course a government can and should establish the legal frameworks and wider forms of support (like training, say, or increased minimum wages, or UBI payments) needed to make this happen. But making the shift happen is going to have to be something enacted at the level of a community or a local authority, say, or an individual business. There are hard limits to what central government can plausibly achieve here since ultimately the shift does require a change in how people act and relate to each other. Technology plus the state, in other words, isn’t going to cover the whole distance – and, furthermore, the kinds of shifts envisaged here are truly holistic: they would reduce not only the pure carbon impact of the economic shift, but wider material throughput. You don’t need rare earth minerals to work fewer hours.
Which leads us back up to the global scale again. And its here that the failures of the state-centred approach start to come through. The final COP26 text is feeble because it sets weak targets for mitigation. Many factors fed into this – not least the much-noted presence of extraordinary numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists – but so, too, did a prior failure to agree an effective funding mechanism for “loss and damage” payments from richer countries to poorer. The G77’s proposal earlier in the week was blocked by the US and the EU; and the basic problem here is that securing action on climate change from less developed countries is always going to be a tough sell if the demand from the developed boils down to telling them that they have to bear the costs of the ecological damage that we collectively inflicted for two centuries. And few of those less developed countries can realistically bear the projected costs of future climate change; some global mechanism will have to be found.
In both cases, action at the level of the nation state alone – or, in the case of the EU, some supra-state entity acting like one – is not enough. The states are too distant and too distrusted to lead significant behaviour change on the ground, not, at least, without significant assistance from wider forces; and the states are simultaneously too small and parochial relative to the consequences of climate change to address the question of global justice.
National recovery programmes
There are clearly very significant steps states can take at a national level. Decarbonising energy systems is an obvious one. So, too, are the mechanisms needed to address the sort of radical within-country inequalities in emissions that the Financial Times recently highlighted:
It should be clear from this that within-country differences dominate between-country differences: the poorest 50% of even the richest G20 member are closer to the poorest 50% of all other G20 members than they are to their own elite. This gives a useful clue as to what a “national recovery programme” might look like in a world where nation-states cannot be the sole focus for climate activity. As a minimum, functioning states are able to enforce taxes, and are credibly believed to be able to enforce taxes. Redistribution via the tax system can go a long way, at a national level, to addressing the sorts of inequalities shown above. A wealth tax, targeted on the top 1% or less in the richer countries, redistributed down the chain, could be used to support transition initiatives like reductions in working time, providing more child care, or installing those electric boilers. But it has to be obviously redistributive to win public support: it has to be a programme that accepts there will be costs from the transition, but that those most able to bear them will be expected to do so.
Start putting this together and what we have looks less like the big green state coming along to give us all big green jobs, and something closer to successful land reform programmes: redistributions of power and wealth that win public support and empower people to act differently, and that, over time, translate into major social transformations.
Dissens podcast have a very thorough interview with Tadzio Müller and Andreas Malm on the stratetic dilemmas of the environmental movement, taking in its progress since the early 2010s and the impasse it now finds itself in. Grace Blakelely interviewing Phil Jones, author of Work Without the Worker on automation and work is well worth a listen. And this from political philosopher Katarina Forrester on the Corbyn movement raises the prospect of its digital rebirth.
Finally, it’s Bulgarian elections today, for the third time this year: previous contests saw the exit of centre-right GERB from power, the disappearance of the far right from Parliament, but no clear winner amongst the various “anti-corruption”, leftish and liberal forces that have emerged in their wake. Retuers has a backgrounder; GERB, otherwise mired in corruption allegations, are presently leading the polls. In the meantime, here’s an interesting piece in on how the attempt to promote what the Communist Party called the “technological transition of socialist Bulgaria into the 21st century” under “actually existing socialism” actually produced a world-class hacker community. По-забавно е да изчисляваш!